I’ve recently been re-reading Maus by Art Spiegelman The book, if you don’t know, is about Spiegelman’s father’s experiences in the Holocaust.
More specifically, it’s about Spiegelman’s own efforts to come to grips with that experience while navigating a really strange relationship with his dad.
One of my favourite pages from Art Spiegelman’s comix masterpiece Maus comes in the very first chapter. Maus is obsessed with this correspondence between the past and the present and it’s a theme that Spiegelman is determent to work out visually in his comic
Looking at this page let’s break this down panel by panel.
In the first panel, Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, takes his grown son Arty back up to his old bedroom after dinner so that he could do some exercise.
Already the past is signalled here with the empty bedroom of a child that’s moved out.
In the second panel, we get a closer look at that room and what Vladek’s done with it: more remnants of the past like the pennant banner from Spiegelman’s college, Harper, where he studied art and philosophy.
We get our first glimpse of the exercise bike that Vladek uses to workout, and this is where Art broaches the subject of the book. Notice that the bodies of both father and son are leaning at the same angle.
Spiegelman’s asking his dad to open up so he parallels his body language.
He’s also equating these two men visually and the book will continue to compare and contrast them until the end.
In the third panel, the heads are paralleled this time. Art’s looking at a picture, but we won’t learn what it is until a few panels down.
In the fourth panel, nothing changes but Art’s head which swivels around to his father as he makes his request explicit.
And then we come to the fifth panel, which stretches the entire width of the page and has a lot going on. You can see three key signifiers of the past:
- The picture in its frame.
- The identification tattoo Vladek received at Auschwitz.
- A speech bubble, where Vladek says, ’’It would take many books, my life, and no one wants anyway to hear such stories.
As critic Hillary Chute notes “it’s as if the past articulated, inscribed, and documented were flanking both men, closing in on them.’’
In the sixth panel, we learn that the photograph is of Arty’s mother, Anja, which helps us understand the panels that came before.
In the seventh panel, we see Vladek’s shoe paddling with effort on the bike but going nowhere.
Then in the eighth and final circular panel, we get our first window into the past, into the story within a story that will consume the book. The different shape signals a new narrative thread while the image of Vladek echoes the photograph that’s been a dominant feature of the rest of the page.
In a comic, you have various panels, those panels are each a unit of time. You see them simultaneously, so you have various moments in time simultaneously made present.Art Spiegelman
Here Art Spiegelman explains why it’s a bit unfair to do what I just did and consider the value of a panel on its own. For Spiegelman, the basic unit of comics is the page. Its basic function the interplay of moments that happens when you take in several panels all at once.
In a way unique to comics time is made spatial, spread out across a surface so that you can see not only how the past effects the future but vice versa.
When you learn that the picture is of Art’s mom/Vladek’s wife who committed suicide it transforms the meaning of this panel and the look shared between father and son, and all it takes is a glance, the side movement in the eyes to access that connection.
You don’t need to rewind or read back or start over again. On the page, those two moments exist simultaneously.
In this sense, graphic design becomes a vital part of comic making.
The ‘words and pictures that make up the comics language are often described as prose and illustration combined. A bad metaphor: poetry and graphic design seem more apt. Poetry for the rhythm and condensing; graphic design because cartooning is more about moving shapes around -designing- then is about drawing.Gregory Gallant
This page of Maus is the perfect illustration of that sentiment. Consider the page as a whole along with the panels that make up its elements.
In Spiegelman’s book and life, his father is a towering figure. His experience surviving the most horrifying event in history becomes the central fact in not just his life, but in his sons. That’s how the trauma of the holocaust invaded the world and how the past invades the present.
In Maus Vladek literally invades the page and pumping away on his exercise bike as shoe points out, Arty’s father is literally unable to move forward.
This is why it makes sense that the past begins in the wheel of that bike.
Art Spiegelman set out to create a comic that would be re-readable. That’s why he spent thirteen years writing, drawing, and designing Maus. Every page is a new pattern to pick apart, a new configuration of moments, past and present, words and images, father and son.
This attention to design is why Maus is often regarded as the best graphic novel ever written. It’s not only that the subject matter is inherently dramatic and effecting, which it is.
It’s that Spiegelman wanted to tell a story in a way that was unique to the comics medium. To extract the truth of the holocaust and of his family that only comics can tell.